There are fresh fears about fracking Scotland’s central belt after scientists in the US discovered dangerous levels of toxic chemicals downstream from a fracking site.
Researchers from the University of Missouri found hormone-disrupting chemicals in surface water near a fracking waste water disposal facility at Fayetteville in West Virginia. The concentrations were high enough to damage wildlife and threaten human health, they said.
Experts and environmentalists warn that the US findings expose the risks that millions would face in Scotland were the fracking industry’s plans to be given the go-ahead. This is, however, denied by the industry.
The Ferret revealed in December that companies, led by INEOS, which runs petrochemical plants at Grangemouth, have plans to frack huge swathes of Scotland around Glasgow, Edinburgh, Falkirk and Dunfermline. They want to create large drilling fields to hydraulically fracture underground rocks to extract shale gas for public consumption.
But their ambitions have been temporarily thwarted by a Scottish Government moratorium on development while health and environmental impacts are assessed. The SNP election manifesto published last week promised that fracking would not be allowed “unless it can be proved beyond any doubt that it will not harm our environment, communities or public health.”
The new US study, however, has fuelled concerns that fracking in Scotland cannot be made acceptably safe. It says that there are more than a hundred chemicals used by the US fracking industry that are known or suspected of being “endocrine disrupters“.
This means that they can interfere with hormones such as insulin, oestrogen and testosterone that regulate vital bodily functions. Studies have suggested that the chemicals can cause sex changes in fish and mice, and pose risks to human reproduction, immune systems and heart function.
Effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals
|increased hospital admissions|
|more congenital heart defects|
|damaged reproductive and immune systems|
|higher risks during pregnancy|
|more low-birth weight babies|
|reduced sperm counts in male mice|
|reduced ovary function in female mice|
|damaged egg production in zebrafish|
|altered gene expression in tilapia fish|
|inhibited development of sea urchins|
The latest study found much higher levels of five hormone-disrupting substances in water samples taken downstream of the West Virginia fracking facility, compared to samples taken upstream. This was highly significant, the study’s author and professor of women’s health at the University of Missouri, Susan Nagel, told The Ferret.
“We have found that oil and natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing produces waste water containing potent concentrations of endocrine disrupting chemicals and that this waste water can contaminate surface water,” she said.
“The level of chemical activity was within the range or higher than the level known to impact the health of aquatic organisms.”
There were risks for human health too, Nagel pointed out. “We have also found that prenatal exposure to a mixture of these chemicals results in negative health outcomes in adulthood, such as altered hormone levels, reduced sperm counts, and other negative health impacts in females.”
Fracking chemicals that can disrupt hormones include benzene, phenol, naphthalene and toluene. According to Andrew Watterson, an environmental health professor from the University of Stirling, the use of such chemicals in the fracking industry was “inevitable”.
He said: “The public currently has no statutory rights to know which fracking chemicals may be used now and in the future and, despite assurances from industry, government and regulators, we still do not know how exactly fracking fluids and related waste water may be disposed of in either England or Scotland.”
This should be a final nail in the fracking coffin for the already sceptical SNP Dr Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland
The Scottish fracking industry would be “very unwise” to dismiss the evidence from the US, Watterson argued. “They must acknowledge that the problem of effectively dealing with fracking waste water containing endocrine disruptors has not yet been solved.”
Stuart Haszeldine, a geology professor at the University of Edinburgh, thought that the use of hormone-disrupting chemicals in the US was becoming “potentially problematic”. Spillages from poorly constructed drill sites and from waste water treatment plants had resulted in contamination, he said.
How the fracking industry was planning to dispose of its waste water in the UK was “very unclear”, he stated. “There are no specialist water treatment plants in Scotland or England intending to accept fracking waste waters.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, warned that communities living with fracking would have to live with toxic pollution. “The SNP manifesto challenges the industry to prove it has no adverse impact on the environment and health,” he said.
“This study shows that they can’t possible meet that test. This should be a final nail in the fracking coffin for the already sceptical SNP.”
Morag Parnell from the Women’s Environmental Network argued that there was now clear evidence that fracking chemicals were harming health in the US. “Surely advocates of this technology in Scotland don’t think that Scots are immune to these illnesses or that this is a price worth paying,” she said.
But INEOS’s communications manager, Richard Longden, insisted that the US findings had no implications for Scotland. “This study is simply not relevant to the UK where the government has already confirmed there will be a completely different process for the handling and disposing of waste water from fracking operations,” he said.
“To try and link this process to Scotland is wrong and will simply mislead the Scottish public.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) would have to authorise waste water discharges from fracking operations in Scotland. It would not allow the disposal of the water into the ground, said Sepa manager, Peter Pollard.
“Before granting authorisation for a discharge into a surface water, Sepa would have to be assured that the discharge would not cause pollution,” he added. “Any authorisation granted by Sepa would place limits on the quantities of substances that could be discharged.”
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 24 April 2016.